Okinawa Seminar by Young Bioinformatics Researchers

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By Kaoru Natori

From September 1st through 4th, 42 students and young scientists, mostly from the Tohoku Region hard hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, participated in the Bioinformatics Okinawa Seminar jointly hosted by OIST and the Young Japanese Society for Bioinformatics. Since the disaster, OIST has expressed its strong support for universities and research institutions affected by the devastation that followed the earthquake, and the seminar was held in part to provide the participants the opportunity to gain new knowledge in a relaxing atmosphere, so the time spent at OIST can contribute meaningfully to the rebuilding of their lives.

Bioinformatics is the field of science in which computer science and information technology are applied to biology. Six top-notch researchers in this field were invited to the seminar to provide hands-on seminars on the use of the cloud-based computing called Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), the statistical language R, the bioinformatics toolkit BioRuby, and the Gene Expression Database. The lecturers guided the participants through each step, in accordance with the level of their understanding of the topics. The following day, scientists who employ these techniques in their research each gave a talk on subjects including genome analysis, transcriptome analysis, and molecular evolutionary genetics analysis. The seminar allowed the participants to familiarize themselves with the very exciting new field.

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Dr. Kazuharu Arakawa

Dr. Kazuharu Arakawa of Keio University’s Institute for Advanced Biosciences, who gave a tutorial on Amazon EC2, underscored its benefits saying: "Many computer facilities in the Tohoku Region were seriously damaged by the disaster. The cloud-based computing enables scientists to continue research once the Internet access is restored. Despite planned power outage put in place to save electricity following the earthquake and tsunami that crippled nuclear power plants in the region, one’s data are safely saved because they are on the cloud." Dr. Arakawa also pointed out that the system saves money, since the initial cost to launch computing environment is small, and also because it only costs a very low rate for the computing capacity actually used.

Mr. Tatsuya Katsube, a junior at Tohoku University’s Biological Institute, said he had been anxious about his future and lost desire to proactively engage in activities after the tragedy. But the financial support for his travel and stay in Okinawa became an impetus for him to join the seminar. "The hands-on sessions altered my perception of informatics from a difficult field to a one crucial to my future research. I now feel strongly motivated to continue studying."

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Most of the participants were experimenters with biological backgrounds. Many said they found the seminar meaningful because it taught them bioinformatics from basics to applications. They also found OIST an ideal research environment, since it is equipped with modern well-equipped laboratories and situated in rich mountains overlooking Okinawa’s beautiful coastline. Having spent four days and nights with some of the best young bioinformatics researchers of Japan, the participants all said they were greatly inspired by the future vision of their seniors.

Dr. Takeshi Kawashima of the OIST Marine Genomics Unit, who played a central role in organizing the seminar, emphasized the significance of the seminar saying: "We invited our colleagues in distress to Okinawa anticipating that OIST would offer a perfect venue for them to relax and study advanced science at the same time. Not only we have successfully achieved this goal, but also we have been able to build a lasting peer network of young researchers."

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*** The seminar was financially or by other means supported by the Okinawa Science and Technology Center, the Japanese Society for Bioinformatics, and the Bioinformatics Programming Contest in the hope that the devastation that followed the earthquake and the tsunami would not hinder researchers from continuing their work.